The Trump administration is urging the U.S. Supreme Court not to review the prison sentences given to Quality Egg LLC executives for their role in failing to prevent a national salmonella outbreak. This move indicates that the Trump administration will support continuance of the responsible corporate officer doctrine, despite a congressional push last year to eliminate it. This follows the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) trend toward aggressive prosecution following foodborne illness outbreaks.
After reaching a plea agreement with the government, the company paid a $6.78 million fine and Quality Egg LLC owner Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son, Chief Operating Officer Peter DeCoster, each paid a $100,000 fine. However, the District Court also gave them each a prison sentence of three months based on their pleas of guilty to strict liability misdemeanor charges of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce, in violation of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld those sentences in July.
The DeCosters are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review this case based on an argument that giving prison time to someone based on their supervisory responsibility, as opposed to their individual conduct, breaks with a long tradition in American law. This doctrine under which the DeCosters were prosecuted is known as the responsible corporate officer doctrine, or Park doctrine. The government is opposing the DeCosters’ bid for review, arguing that the sentence was actually based on the DeCosters’ individual conduct found at their sentencing hearing. In other words, the government is saying an individual corporate officer can be held strictly liable and convicted based solely on his or her supervisory responsibilities, and then face prison time where the District Court determines at a sentencing hearing — where the rules of evidence do not apply and the burden of proof is lower — that the individual officer was at least negligent.
Last year, there was a bipartisan push for sentencing reform, which would have included the elimination of the responsible corporate officer doctrine. However, that proposed legislation was ultimately defeated by opposition from some, including then-Senator (now Attorney General) Jeff Sessions.
Both the lead prosecutor on the DeCoster case and the head of the DOJ Consumer Protection Branch, which oversees these matters, appeared at FaegreBD’s 2016 Food & Agriculture Conference. One key takeaway from that panel was that the government will continue to rely on the responsible corporate officer doctrine if the evidence suggests that individual corporate officials were in a position to correct food safety problems and prevent substantial harm to consumers.